The first televised presidential debate for Taiwan 2012 was held on Saturday. The format for the debate allowed scripted openings for each of the candidates, followed by questions from the media, questions from the candidates to their rivals followed by scripted summations. It was, like the rest of the campaign, rather low-key, and all three candidates played it safe. But, as James Soong and Tsai Ing-wen both emphasized in their wrap-ups, the fact that Taiwan has this kind of democratic institution is a point of pride. Electoral competition in Taiwan is fierce, but the debate was carried out in a manner becoming of presidential candidates.
The Central Election Commission began organizing ‘discussion fora’ in 1983, as platforms on which opposing candidates could, in theory, present their own views. Televised debates are the evolved version of those fora, and have been used for candidates in national and sub-national executive elections, and also ad hoc special events such as ECFA. TV Debates have become an institutionalized component of the presidential campaign, and have a substantive and symbolic role to play in Taiwan’s electoral competition. Research in the US suggests that debates have a small impact on voters’ evaluations of the candidates and small increases in voter knowledge; but generally have a non-decisive impact on vote choice.
Thus, as common and fun as it is to grade candidate debate performance, outside of Perry-style meltdowns, Quayle-style put-downs, Ford-style Poland-flubs, or unless you’re Bill Clinton, debate performance doesn’t have a substantial effect. I am skeptical therefore when I see in AP’s (via WaPo) overview that the debate “could go a long way in determining the future of the incumbent’s efforts to bring the democratic island closer to China.” There were no major flubs and both major candidates generally stayed on message. Tsai attacked Ma’s record on the job and explicated her China position deliberately and carefully. Ma challenged her to accept the “1992 consensus” and promoted his job performance. Both appeared nervous to me (as did the moderator, who is taking some heat for addressing the candidates in an inappropriate fashion), but performed well enough–no Nixon sweats on either side. Given low expectations and nothing to lose, James Soong may have been the best performer. The obligatory TVBS poll favours Ma’s performance. This is not surprising, but it is also not an outrageous result, particularly when debates are largely about personality and looks, on which Ma scores well (although I thought he looked unusually ruffled yesterday).
A couple of interesting strategy observations from the debate. Ma appears, for the moment, to be ignoring Soong and concentrating his attacks on Tsai. He wants to create doubts about the DPP’s suitability to govern (witness the attempt, well deflected by Tsai, to bring CSB into the debate) and attacking the DPP may satisfy some of the blue voters who (currently say they) have defected to Soong. Tsai has shown that she is a viable, presidential ‘character’, but doubts remain about the specifics of her economic programs and ‘Taiwan consensus’ as the basis of cross-Strait relations. While voters don’t want to read hundred page policy documents, the KMT could leverage these doubts simply by emphasizing this over and again.